When it comes to quilts, the copyright issue is a very hot, and sometimes controversial, issue. Many feel that since quilt patterns and designs have historically been freely shared it is okay to copy quilts and patterns now. Others want to protect the hard work they have put into their own original designs. Quilters must realize that all original designs are protected under US copyright law.
There are many traditional block designs, such as the Ohio Star, and quilting patterns, such as a Feathered Wreath, which fall into the "public domain" category. These designs have been around for more that 75 years, so they may be freely copied and distributed. You can check a source such as Barbara Brackman’s "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" or her "Encyclopedia of Appliqué" to get an idea of when many of the traditional designs were first published.
However, original work made less than 75 years ago is protected by law, even if it does not have the copyright symbol © on it. A copyright gives the copyright owner the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare works derived from the copyrighted work, to distribute copies, and to display the copyrighted work publicly. As a side note, after 1978, the copyright law was changed so it now lasts the lifetime of the author plus 70 years.
Copyright infringement occurs when a person copies someone else’s copyrighted item without permission. This also includes publicly displaying a copy of copyrighted work. So, if you simply fall in love with someone else’s original quilt and want to make one too, be sure to ask permission first and get it in writing. Many quilt artists are happy to grant permission as long as they know you are not going to mass produce their design and, when you have obtained permission, be sure to give credit to the designer on the quilt’s label.
At times, a quilt we have seen may be an inspiration for one we design ourselves. So that you do not violate copyright law, you would need to change the design enough that it does not look like the original. Just changing the color scheme or altering a design detail or two is not enough.
When it comes to commercially produced quilt patterns, quilt books and quilt magazines which you have purchased, you can make one photocopy for yourself so you can cut it up or mark on it and not ruin the original. However, you can not photocopy the pattern to give to a friend so she doesn’t have to buy it. This would result in a loss of income for the author and is protected by US law. It doesn’t matter if the book is out-of-print either; the copyright still exists for the time period discussed above.
If you take a quilt class, you have implied permission to make one copy of the teacher’s class sample. However, if your friend did not take the class, she does not have permission to make a copy too. She would need written permission from the teacher. In addition, you would need permission to publicly display the quilt or to sell it.
It is easy to respect the copyright law once you know what is permissible and what is not. Simply follow the golden rule.
Article originally published December 2000
© 2000, Maria Elkins